Within hours after Hurricane Maria crashed ashore last month, officials at Fort Lauderdale’s Nova Southeastern University knew their Puerto Rico campus would be closed for weeks or even longer while the shattered island recovered. And, with power, water and even most forms of commerce knocked out, they fretted about what might be happening to their 770 students, faculty and staff in San Juan.
When Tampa cardiologist Kiran Patel — who through a family foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Nova — learned of their worries, he said the solution was simple: I’ve got a plane that most of the time just sits on the runway. Why don’t we use it get supplies to our people in Puerto Rico?
It was the beginning of a mini-supply route that now has funneled about 6,000 pounds of food, water, toilet paper, flashlights, batteries and baby wipes to the Nova campus. That might be a small drop in a very large bucket on an island of 3.5 million people, but it’s still 770 or so people that the Puerto Rican government, stretched thin in every direction by a catastrophe of near-Biblical proportions, doesn’t have to worry about.
“Depending on government and professionals to help you is not the way I was raised,” Patel told the Miami Herald this week. “What’s happening in Puerto Rico is not a government problem. It’s our problem. It’s society’s problem, and we all have to act.”
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Nova’s effort to bypass the gridlock clamped on Puerto Rico hurricane relief by red tape, jurisdictional squabbling and limited transportation resources is by no means the only one. A growing trickle of supplies is flowing onto the island from private individuals and companies that aren’t waiting around for anybody to approve their plans but just doing it.
“Sometimes you have to do it the Miami way,” said political-communications consultant Eleazar David Meléndez, a member of an informal relief network — he calls it a “guerilla flotilla” — that has shipped nearly a million pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico in the past 10 days or so. “Not follow the rules, just get a result.”
Sometimes you have to do it the Miami way.
Eleazar David Meléndez, consultant
Some of the efforts are big, some small. The rapper Pitbull sent his private plane to evacuate cancer patients. DHL flew 250,000 pounds of supplies in a single week. Two FedEx relief flights a day have arrived since the main San Juan airport reopened. The Fort Lauderdale-based medical transport company REVA sent three team members to hand out medical supplies last week.
But even a single small plane can make a big difference, the relief workers say.
“We have a lot of people with twin turboprop planes who help us,” Melendez said. “They can carry maybe 10,000 pounds tops. That doesn’t sound like much. But 10,000 pounds of insulin, that’s really important.”
Sometimes the private relief efforts are driven by personal ties to Puerto Rico, like those of Nova Southeastern or Meléndez, who was born on the island. And sometimes they originate in oh-gee moments by people who suddenly realize they’re situated to help.
Kevin Diemar, president of the Miami-based Unity Jets charter company, had one of those moments. In the first days after the hurricane, when almost no commercial flights were able to leave San Juan, Diemar’s company was doing a brisk business in ferrying well-heeled customers off the island.
“We were bringing people out, but the flights going down there were empty,” Diemar said. “And then I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we load the Puerto Rico-bound flights with supplies?’” Since then, each of his Lear Jet 45s headed to Puerto Rico has carried between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds of water, baby food and other supplies, which he hands over to relief organizations operating on the ground.
Diemar’s story illustrates a couple of key points about the private relief efforts. One is that American hearts are overflowing with generosity for Puerto Rico: All Diemar has to do to fill his planes with supplies is to announce on Facebook that he’s got a flight headed to the island, and the donations start piling up.
“Everybody wants to help,” Diemar said. “I could easily get enough donations to fill several flights a day if we were making them.”
The other is that Puerto Rico’s smaller airports are the key to private relief efforts. Less busy, they’re easier to book a small plane into, and offer quicker unloading. Getting permission to unload on the airport tarmac can take up to six hours, which greatly complicates the entire process when arrivals and departures can only be made during daylight hours.
The 18 smaller airports are also scattered across the island, which means the supplies don’t stack up in San Juan, awaiting scarce transport to Puerto Rico’s interior.
“One of the biggest problems in all this is the difficulty in moving supplies around Puerto Rico once you get them there,” said celebrity chef Ingrid Hoffman, who with an informal network of friends has managed to get about 20 relief flights into the island.
“It’s a combination of roads being washed out or blocked, and trucks being destroyed,” she said. “Maybe you were a company with 20 trucks before the hurricane. But some of them were destroyed by the storm, and some of your drivers’ homes were destroyed and they’ve moved someplace else, and you don’t know where because all the phones are out and communications have been reduced to people walking around with messages for each other.”
And, she added quietly, there’s another possibility: “Maybe some of them are dead.”
Bypassing San Juan and delivering supplies directly to mayors or private groups like the Red Cross out in the countryside also keeps the aid from getting snagged in governmental regulations and arguments over who gets credit for the help.
At one point, five Miami warehouses were stacked full of donated emergency supplies that the state of Florida couldn’t deliver because the Puerto Rican government hadn’t formally asked for it or designated a point to deliver it.
“That’s exactly the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid,” said one private relief worker. “You want to stay under the radar as much as you can. … The red tape has been cut a lot just because so many people are doing so many things that nobody can keep track of them. But it can still really tie you down if you stumble into it.”
Melendez said he didn’t realize the full extent of the confusion and dysfunction in the official governmental relief effort until he got a call a few days ago from a friend who works with Puerto Rico’s lobbyists in Washington.
“He said, ‘Hey, I have four U-haul trailers full of stuff, but I can’t get it there. If I give it to you, can you get it delivered?’” said Melendez. “If a guy operating at that level can’t do it, how do you think it’s working for everybody else?”
That’s why the private relief networks — even large ones, like Hoffman’s — have resisted creating any formal infrastructure. They fear it will breed bureaucracy and inertia.
“This is an ‘infrastructure’ of everybody doing it for free, on the fly,” Hoffman said. “We’re kind of making it up as we go along.”
She prefers it that way, even though she’s been working on storm recovery efforts pretty much nonstop since Hurricane Harvey struck the coast of Texas in August. Hoffman first caught the hurricane-relief bug in 2005 when she joined a collection of chefs setting up food kitchens in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“We have not slept in days,” she said of her coterie of organizers. “This is all day, all night. But this is the way we always do it — no paid staff, no employees. That way, everything donated to us goes directly to the storm victims.”
Melendez, however, is starting to think that creating a permanent organization and bringing on some paid help might not be so bad. “My consulting clients aren’t happy with me,” he admitted. “And I haven’t done laundry in three weeks.”
Miami Herald staffers Mary Ellen Klas and Howard Cohen helped report this story.